Faith

Former Kansas City priest faces third credible sex abuse claim, Wyoming diocese says

Bishop Joseph Hart anoints a newly ordained priest on Thursday, May 11, 2000. Hart, a former bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., was accused by multiple men of sexual misconduct while he was a priest in Kansas City.
Bishop Joseph Hart anoints a newly ordained priest on Thursday, May 11, 2000. Hart, a former bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., was accused by multiple men of sexual misconduct while he was a priest in Kansas City.

Catholic officials in Wyoming say they have received a third credible sex abuse allegation against a former Kansas City priest who went on to become bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Cheyenne diocese said the allegation was reported after the diocese announced in July that it had conducted an investigation and found “credible and substantiated” evidence that retired Bishop Joseph Hart had abused two Wyoming boys.

“Following this announcement, a third individual reported that he, too, was sexually abused by Bishop Hart in 1980,” the diocese said. “The diocese reported the allegation to the Cheyenne Police Department and is cooperating with their investigation.”

Hart, now 86, was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976, then served as bishop or auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001. The latest allegation means a dozen abuse claims have been brought against Hart. Three have now been lodged in Wyoming, and the others have been made in the area covered by the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese.

Wyoming, unlike most states, has no statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions, so charges can be filed even in decades-old cases.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese said last month that Hart was named by 10 individuals in lawsuits regarding child sexual abuse claims dating from the 1970s. Those claims were part of large settlements the diocese entered into in 2008 and 2014 for cases involving numerous victims and priests.

The Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne said this week that it had conducted a canonical investigation into the most recent accusation, as required by church law. The investigation, it said, included notifying Hart and requesting an interview so he could respond to the allegation. Hart declined to be interviewed, the diocese said.

The results of the investigation, the diocese said, were turned over to the Diocesan Review Board, which found the allegation to be credible. The diocese said it has forwarded its initial investigation to the Vatican for review.

Cheyenne Bishop Steven Biegler commended the latest accuser “for having the courage to contact us.”

“If anyone has been abused, no matter how long ago, I encourage you to come forward,” Biegler said in the statement. “I want to listen to you and accompany you on a journey of healing.”

Hart’s attorney, Thomas Jubin, issued a statement Wednesday blasting the Cheyenne Diocese and saying Hart “continues to deny any sexual impropriety.”

“Once again, the Diocese of Cheyenne is engaging in a smear campaign in an effort to try to influence public opinion with considerably less than the full story,” Jubin said. “The Diocese of Cheyenne continues to refuse to inform Bishop Hart what the allegations are that have been made against him and who is making them. Why would anyone agree to be interviewed by someone who refuses to fully and candidly explain the reasons for the interview?”

The diocese is not an investigative agency, Jubin said, nor is it qualified to serve as one.

“Now that it has been confirmed that there is an investigation by law enforcement professionals, what is the point, other than personal vendetta or a need to distract from the horrible headlines of the past few weeks, of the Diocese releasing such a press release about matters outside its competence?” he said. “It is time for the Diocese to desist and let law enforcement professionals do their job within a system where innuendo is not evidence and accusations are not convictions.”

The new accusations against Hart surfaced in July when the Cheyenne bishop said that Hart had been credibly accused of sexually abusing two boys. Biegler criticized a previous investigation by civil authorities as “flawed” and said he was continuing restrictions placed years ago on Hart.

News about the latest allegation comes in the wake of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that found church leaders there had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

The report contained horrific details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for change from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Last week, Pope Francis released a 2,000-word letter admitting that the Vatican hadn’t done enough to address the issue.

In Kansas City and around the country, sex abuse victims called for authorities to conduct grand jury investigations similar to Pennsylvania’s. And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that the Archdiocese of St. Louis was opening its files to his office to conduct a review of potential clergy abuse in that archdiocese. Other dioceses in Missouri, including Kansas City-St. Joseph, said they would also cooperate in the investigation.

Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles and four victims of abuse made a plea for Kansas and Missouri to open grand-jury style investigations similar to the one conducted of Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.

Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992, when two men alleged that Hart had sexually abused them when he was a priest in Kansas City and they were boys. Church officials deemed those allegations not credible, but the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese helped one of the men buy a pickup truck and paid for his counseling. The diocese also paid counseling bills for two sisters of the other victim. On Thursday, a diocesan spokesman said the diocese and Bishop James V. Johnston now deem both those allegations credible.

Then in 2002, a Wyoming man accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy. The Cheyenne diocese said in July that a second Wyoming man had recently come forward and alleged that Hart also had abused him.

Last week, the Cheyenne Police Department said it was seeking information regarding sex abuse claims reported to police as a result of an internal investigation underway by the Diocese of Cheyenne.

Although police did not name the subject of the investigation in their release — only calling him a “church official” — it was clear that the person they were referring to was Hart. The police department said it was looking into allegations of abuse taking place in Cheyenne in the 1970s through the late 1990s by a local church official.

Police said the goal of issuing the news release was to try to identify more potential victims and witnesses in the case.

On Wednesday, Cheyenne Bishop Biegler asked for prayers of healing for all who are impacted by sexual abuse.

“Recently, Pope Francis said of the sex abuse scandal, ‘We abandoned the little ones,’” Biegler said. “As we move forward, we must heed the call of the Lord Jesus to be guardians of the least.”

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